The Sussex Downs Murder was the third of John Bude’s mystery novels and appeared in 1936. John Bude was a pseudonym used by Ernest Elmore (1901-1957). He was evidently popular enough in his day to publish around thirty detective novels over a period of just over twenty years. His work was subsequently almost completely forgotten until the recent British Library re-issue of several of his early mysteries.
The Sussex Downs Murder was the second Bude mystery to feature Superintendent Meredith.
John Rother is a fairly prosperous farmer. His brother William and William’s wife Janet also live in the farmhouse known as Chalklands. Their wealth comes not just from farming but also from lime-burning, a fairly lucrative sideline in that kind of chalk country. John and William do not see eye-to-eye on quite a number of subjects.
John Rother’s mysterious disappearance is the initial subject of Superintendent Meredith’s investigation. There is no logical reason why Rother’s car should have been found where it was found and the presence of copious bloodstains in the car interior is more than a little worrying. Of John Rother there is no trace. And there continues to be no trace of him for many days until a quite accidental and very grim discovery transforms the case into a murder investigation.
There are not very many suspects and one suspect stands out as being the obvious one. Superintendent Meredith has a pretty clear idea of what happened. His theory is straightforward and elegant. The only problem is that it’s wrong. There are too many clues that are obviously vital and relevant that his theory fails to explain.
The Sussex Downs Murder is very much in the Freeman Wills Crofts police procedural mould. In fact Superintendent Meredith could be described as the poor man’s Inspector French. His methods are very similar indeed. Meredith follows up leads energetically and when they don’t pan out he moves on to the next lead. Thoroughness and perseverance are his watchwords.
Bude might not be in the same league as Crofts but The Sussex Downs Murder is still a worthy example of its type. He is perhaps just a little more theatrical in his effects, a little closer in feel to melodrama.
What Bude does have going him is a rich feel for the Sussex landscape and for the people who inhabit that landscape. Reading the book today is a rather poignant experience - it’s a glimpse into an idyllic vanished world.
The plot is certainly fair play. The solution is obvious once it’s explained but then that’s the whole point of a detective story - the solution should be obvious in hindsight. I must confess that I missed it because like Superintendent Meredith I fell for a tempting red herring.
Bude’s prose is workmanlike but it’s pleasing and effective with a few touches of humour. There are a few moments that could have been rather gruesome (and a modern crime writer would undoubtedly have made those moments very gruesome indeed) but Bude fortunately does not choose to wallow in grisly and completely unnecessary details.
There are no country houses or landed gentry in this novel but Bude demonstrates that the affairs (and the crimes) of ordinary country folk can be just as colourful and just as entertaining.
Like his earlier The Lake District Murder this is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. Highly recommended.